27 February 2015

Rebirth in the Ṛgveda

Most modern discussions of the afterlife in the Vedas say that rebirth/reincarnation is not found in the Ṛgveda. Conventionally speaking, the first mention of rebirth in India literature is thought to be in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.4). This text was composed somewhat before Buddhism and probably in or near the kingdom of Kosala (within reach of the śrāmaṇa religions). The idea of karma in relation to rebirth is introduced by a king (kṣatriya) and many scholars take this to mean that the Brahmins adopted rebirth from a śrāmaṇa group.

Joanna Jurewicz has shown that despite the conventional understanding that there is evidence for belief in rebirth in the Ṛgveda. This essay will walk through her discovery and comment on the relevance for Buddhist rebirth. Jurewicz's discovery begins with by revisiting a well known passage in the Ṛgveda. In RV 10.16.5 we find this passage. I cite Wendy Doniger's translation to show the conventional understanding of this stanza.
áva sr̥ja púnar agne pitŕ̥bhyo yás ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ |
ā́yur vásāna úpa vetu śéṣaḥ sáṃ gachatāṃ tanúvā jātavedaḥ ||
Set him free again to go to the fathers, Agni, when he has been offered as an oblation in you and wanders with the sacrificial drink. Let him reach his own descendent, dressing himself in a life-span. O knower of creatures, let him join with a body. 
Here the dead person is treated like a sacrificial offering (āhuta) to the fire (agni). Agni transforms offerings into smoke and wafts them up to the sky where the devas live. Jurewicz makes the point that in Vedic eschatology the fathers or ancestors also dwell in the sky or heaven.

Jurewicz points about that pitṛbhyaḥ can either be dative and ablative and that all translators to date have read it as dative (to the fathers). But really there is no apriori reason not to read it as ablative (from the fathers).

Jurewicz analyses the verb ava√sṛj according to the principles of George Lakoff. She points out that the concrete meaning is 'untie' as in 'untie a bound captive, or a tethered animal'. Abstractly this can refer to forgiveness for wrongdoing. In a ritual context untying the animal means to sacrifice it, as the victim is bound to a post before being killed. The verb ava√sṛj can also refer to releasing an arrow. Jurewicz speculates that the bow-string might be seen as binding the arrow which is then release from captivity when the archer looses it (though 'to [let] loose' an arrow is also a metaphor in English and I think refers to the right hand hold (back) the bow-string and the arrow). Another sense of ava√sṛj is the releasing of the waters by Indra (RV 10.133.2, 8.32.25). In this usage the preverb ava takes its most obvious meaning of 'down'. When Indra releases the waters, rain pours down and rivers flow down from the mountains (an image also found in the Pāḷi Canon). Thus there is a strong argument for emphasising the reading of "release him down from the fathers again."

However we read pitṛbhyaḥ it raises the question of why the text asks Agni to do this again (punar). "Send him to the the fathers again" or "release him from the fathers again." One obvious reading is that the poet conceives of this happening repeatedly, i.e. that he believes that one is born, dies and goes to the ancestors repeatedly.

The other padas of the verse support this reading. Although śeṣa  (literally 'remainder') can mean what is left after the fire has burned out, in the Ṛgveda it definitely also means 'offspring'. In addition āyuḥ refers to a human life. In her consideration of the word svadhā, which qualifies the movement of the dead (ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ "The sacrificial offering proceeds with svadhā"), Jurewicz says "Most scholars in their translations choose words denoting will, right or autonomy." Doniger, by contrast relates svadhā to soma, the drug laced liquid imbibed as a stimulant and ladled onto the fire as an offering. However, Jurewicz argues that the main idea being conveyed here is 'contradictoriness'. This captures the sense that the unmoving dead body is none-the-less able to travel (as smoke from the fire) up to heaven.

Jurewicz proposes the alternate reading of the verse:
"Release him to his fathers and again down from them, who, poured into you, travels
according to his will. Let him who wears life come to his offspring. Let him join his
body, Jatavedas!"
On this reading the verse is quite clearly a reference to rebirth. Jurewicz's sensitivity to the nuances of the language allow us to see this verse in a new light. This does not exclude the other readings seen by other translators. Language does this. It covers a wide range of possibilities that are apparent to the community of speakers and which are often lost in translation. What we assume about the context may influence how we make editorial and translation decisions.

In my next essay I will explore the role of Yama in discovering the pitṛloka. Yama had to find his way there, and since the way there is the correct performance of the śrāddha or funeral rights, then this suggests a memory of the adoption of rebirth eschatology, probably in India, since Vedic speakers do not share this idea with anyone other Indo-Europeans.

The discovery of rebirth this early in Indian history is important. Because it means that if Vedic speakers did adopt rebirth from outside their immediate cultural sphere, as seems likely, they did so very early in their time in India. A broad consensus places the composition of the Ṛgveda in the time period 1500-1200 BCE. To my knowledge no one has suggested that śrāmaṇa culture can be found in the Vedic āryavarta or homeland in the Western Ganges Valley, nor is there evidence for śrāmaṇa culture at this early stage. It also suggests that some kind of rebirth eschatology was widespread in the Ganges Valley when the Vedic speakers arrived. And what was introduced in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad was not rebirth per se, but the linking of rebirth to good (puṇya) and evil (pāpa) actions.

To my mind this is a blow to those who argue that rebirth was foreign to the Buddha and interpolated into Buddhism. An interesting parallel is the Brahmanical social institution of varṇa or class, that develops into jati or the system of caste. Buddhist texts often treat varṇa as foreign. There are many arguments about how and to whom it might apply. Brahmins insistence on being the best caste are regularly undermined. There are actual arguments about caste. No such arguments occur with rebirth as the focus. Similarly there are discussions about the role of Brahmā in the world. But rebirth is simply a background idea that is never challenged. There are those who explicitly reject any kind of afterlife (e.g. Prince Pāyāsi) but they are treated as misguided and untrustworthy.

When we discuss the appearance of Indic languages and culture in India we used to speak of invasions. The invasion theory has long been untenable. Most likely small, related bands of Indic speakers—Vedic and related dialects—began moving into the sub-continent and were assimilated by the existing population, leaving little genetic trace. In the language of the Ṛgveda we see many loan words from the Dravidian language family and quite a few from Munda (or Austro-Asiatic), structured in such a way as to suggest that Munda speaking people were met first. See Witzel (1999). This trickle of incomers from Iran and now Afghanistan has continued to the present, sometimes overshadowed by invasions proper (Alexander of Macedonia, the Kushans, etc). Rebirth like many features of Indian languages appears to be a regional feature of the Indian subcontinent. A few relics of the migration have been preserved, such as the retentions of the scheme of assessing morality by actions of the body, speech and mind, a scheme which comes from Zoroastrianism. 



Jurewicz, Joanna. The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology. Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. http://www.ocbs.org/lectures-a-articles-ocbsmain-121/63-the-rigveda-small-scale-societies-and-rebirth-eschatology

Witzel, Michael. (1999) Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).
Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 5(1): 1-67.

20 February 2015

The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Uni of Washington
Alexander Wynne has been at the forefront of apologetics for taking the suttas at face value as historically accurate. He recently uploaded a copy of his 2005 article, The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature, to academia.edu:

(2005) The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical EvaluationVienna Journal of South Asian Studies. 49: 35-70

Readers may know that there is a split in Buddhist studies. On one side are religious traditionalists and mainly British scholars (particularly Richard Gombrich and Wynne at Oxford) who see the early Buddhist texts as a more or less accurate account of Buddhist history. On the other side are religious sceptics (yours truly) and mainly American scholars (particularly Greg Schopen and Don Lopez) who don't think there is anything authentically historical in the suttas.

Wynne writes and argues well and is taking an active role in the debate. But he is far less critical than he ought to be of his sources and it's only by ignoring many of the problems that I'll set out below that he can stick to his conclusions. He places too much credence on the traditional narratives of Buddhism. 

We know this: there is a body of literature we associate with early Buddhism and the early phase of sectarian Buddhism. This literature is preserved, in a language we now call Pali, in major collections of manuscripts in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, with minor collections in Laos, Vietnam and perhaps other places. Substantial parts of several other recensions are preserved in Middle-Chinese in China, Japan and Korea (the most influential modern edition of the Chinese Canon, the Taishō, is based on a recension preserved in Korean) both in manuscript form and in printed editions. Fragments of several recensions are preserved in Gāndhārī, Buddhist Sanskrit, and Tibetan collections.

There are clearly relationships between these recensions of the literature. Many of the actual sutta/sūtra texts are same or similar, though some are quite different. However at the level of Nikāya/Āgama collections, they only partially overlap. Even within the Pāḷi Nikāyas when a sutta is recorded twice in two different Nikāyas it is often different in significant ways. Similarly the various collections titled Vinaya only partially overlap (and to a lesser extent than the sūtras). The Abhidharma collections are all very different and even adopt different hermeneutic principles for interpreting the texts. Thus the collections seem to draw on a common body of texts, but to collate and interpret them differently. 

Scholars in favour of seeing this body of literature as "authentic" (a word we'll have to come back to and define) tend to portray the literature as fairly homogeneous and belonging to a specific region in space and time. They tend to accept the story told by the literature about it's own genesis. I find the reasons for doing so less and less convincing the more I read the literature. 


Here's the thing about dating. We can be reasonable certain about the date of Asoka because of his inscriptions. Mid 3rd century BC. All of the dates for Indian history in the first millennia BC are worked out (mostly guessed at) with respect to this single reference point. We assume that literature which does not know Asoka, was written before his time. The Pali Nikāyas and Vināya do not know Asoka. What's more they seem to describe a landscape of fortified cities and petty kings in which the later hegemons like the Kingdom of Magadha are just starting to flex their imperialistic muscles. Not only is there no sign of Asoka, there's no sign of the Mauryan dynast, Candragupta. The Magadhan capital is still Rājagṛha rather than Pāṭaliputta. Archaeology tells us that this form of geography began to emerge ca. 6th century BC. We've rediscovered ruins that correspond to the major civil and geographic reference points that seem to align with the Buddhist stories. The major exception of the on-going dispute over the location of Kapilavastu. If, as I suspect, the story of the Buddha's life is largely a later fiction, then the identity home town is also likely to be fictional - Kapilavastu is likely to have been a wattle & daub village. 

Given these points we assume that the early Buddhist texts were composed between ca. 6th-4th century BC. There is no way to date the texts absolutely. The oldest Buddhists texts are birch bark scrolls from Gandhāra dated roughly to the first century BCE. The oldest Pāli text is a metal plate from the 6th century, most of the manuscripts of the Pāli Canon are only a century or two old. We know from their texts that Brahmins of a slightly earlier period (associated with the exegetical Brāhmaṇa literature) thought the region the Buddha lived in was barbaric and an unsuitable place for Brahmins to live. None of the early Upaniṣads mention Buddhists and whereas Brahmins feature quite prominently in the early Buddhist texts. Many scholars think we can see hints at some knowledge of themes from the Upaniṣads in the early Buddhist texts. One major scholar, Johannes Bronkhorst, inverts this however and argues that the Upaniṣads must have been composed after the early Buddhist texts. Brahmins took some time to fully convert the central and eastern Ganges plain to their culture. In fact this happened after Asoka. But the early Buddhist texts record fairly frequent meetings with Brahmins and interesting phenomena like land grants by kings to Brahmins (where land = income). Buddhist texts also give a scattered, but overall fairly comprehensive, picture of the Brahmanical religion revolving around sacrificial fires and strong guru/disciple relationships. 

We don't know and cannot know if this is correct. The assumption by Gombrich and Wynn is that if the texts say something is so and we have no reason to doubt them, then we ought to take the texts as being accurate. I and others argue that we have every reason to doubt the texts and should never take them at their word, but should interrogate them to expose inconsistencies.

One of the major problems is that while these cities are known to exist and archaeological evidence for Buddhist activity is found in and around them, it all dates from many centuries after the period when we assume the Buddha to have lived. There's no clearly Buddhist archaeology that pre-dates Asoka. Given Buddhist's own stories this is quite surprising - we know for example that land was donated and structures created by rich followers. But all the structures discovered to date are from the period of Asoka or later. Attempts to interpret pre-Asokan dates are often obviously bogus.

Another problem is that by their own admission the texts were preserved orally for something like three centuries before being written down in Sri Lanka, ca. 100 BC. We don't know (I think) when the texts were written down in India. However we do have manuscripts of Buddhist texts from about the 1st century AD from Gandhāra, so at least by that point Buddhist texts were written. In some cases it's obvious from internal evidence that the texts were composed well after the period they purport to be an account of. Comparison of little details in the Chinese Canon suggests that it was closed to additions and emendation somewhat later than the Pali Canon, which perhaps suggests a later date for being committed to writing. This is a lot of conjecture however, and none of it testable with the present state of archaeology and paleography.

The texts represent an event horizon beyond which we cannot see much if anything with clarity. All dates, except Asoka are vague and/or speculative, if only because establishing relationships to Asoka is often an exercise in speculation. Any historical facts are smeared out and information is lost. We can say what kind of world is reflected in the texts, but we have a great deal of difficulty demonstrating a relationship between this story and reality. Contra Gombrich and Wynne I think we have every reason to doubt traditional narratives.


My own recent work has been focussed on cracks in the facade of homogeneity and unanimity presented by many scholars. In particular I've tried to show that the idea that the Pali Canon represents a single tradition is not sustainable. The Pali texts are clearly collated from multiple oral lineages that have been inexpertly edited into several collections (nikāyas). Supposedly fundamental doctrines show a bewildering amount of diversity in the suttas. Details are often fudged or changed. And the approach to this by scholars has been to compose unifying narratives that gloss over internal inconsistency or try to demonstrate a linear development within the texts. I think this methodology is flawed from the start. Instead, I argue that it is precisely the flaws in our material that convey the most information about the history of the collection. We ought to be foregrounding flaws rather than explaining them away. And we have to consider that linear developments do not explain the divergences sufficiently well. 

My work on the Buddha's name for example shows that Siddhartha is a name attributed long after the time of Canon, and that if his family used a gotra name they used it extremely idiosyncratically and ahistorically (See What's in a Name pdf). If the head of the family was alive, he (i.e. Suddhodana) rather than his son ought to have been called Gautama. His son ought to have been Gautamaputra,  Gautamya, or some other diminutive (though of course they certainly did not speak or use Sanskrit!). On the other hand why were his mother and aunt called Gautamī? Gotras are exogamous marriage groups: Māyā and Prajāpati wouldn't have changed their gotra names on marriage, and nor could they have married within the Gautama gotra. And why are there so few other members of the Gautama clan in the Pāli? Other gotra names occur frequently. Gotra names are a tradition belonging to the strongly patriarchal Brahmins, though matrilineal names are not unknown, it's unlikely that the Buddha took his mother's gotra name (the matrilineal form Gautamiputra occurs in non-Buddhist contexts). Gautama is a gotra of considerable renown in the Vedic world. The patriarch, Gotama, was one of the poets who composed the Ṛgveda, and his descendents, the Gautamas, feature prominently as teachers and exegetes.  And yet the Śākyas were clearly not part of the Vedic milieu and at times the Buddha is portrayed as treating the Brahmins as crazy foreigners. The ascription of Brahmanical caste identity to the Buddha is almost certainly anachronistic, not to mention being somewhat variable. Though he is usually a Gautama, at least once he is said to be from the Āditya gotra. The Buddha's biography has been reworked to give him prestige in a Brahmin dominated world. This tells us that the biography was probably composed in a time of Brahmanical hegemony, which would place it after Asoka. And it happened in a way that was accepted and recorded by all Buddhists. This fact contradicts all other theories about the time period that the texts represent.

I've also discussed the contradictory biographical traditions in the suttas (see The Buddha's Biography). There are at least two biographies of the Buddha. In one he is a unmarried youth when he leaves home and his mother is still alive. In another he is a man of 29 whose mother died in childbirth. The youth is found in the Pāli version of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and the 29 year old in the Chinese counterpart of the same text. Both stories cannot be true and we have no objective way of knowing which is. All we have is a general historical principle that Buddhist stories become more elaborate over time (there is clear evidence of this in the accurately dated Chinese translations). Thus, we usually assume that a less elaborate version of a story is (relatively) earlier than the same story in a more elaborate version. 


Thus the suttas are at best an ambiguous source of information. Sometimes consistent with an early period centred on the 5th century BCE and yet at other times with a period some centuries after this. Many details of history found in the Canon are also contradicted in the Canon. This lack of internal consistency is not simply overlooked or explained away, it is presented as the opposite, as strikingly self-consistent. For the average Buddhist, almost inevitably falling into confirmation bias, the endorsement of their views by scholars of considerable reputation makes it all the harder to objectively evaluate the information at our disposal. 

The situation is probably that the suttas do not represent one period of history, but were composed over several centuries and that earlier texts form a template for later texts. Everything we know about later Buddhist texts, such as the Perfection of Wisdom texts, tells us that Indian Buddhists never stopped retelling and embellishing their stories. This is clear for example where we have multiple Chinese translations over the centuries: later translations of the same text are inevitably longer and more elaborate, often accumulating several chapters at a time. My observation of comparing Chinese and Pali texts is that this happened to a lesser extent with early Buddhist texts as well (see my translations and notes on the Chinese Spiral Path texts). 

However, we also know that words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and sometimes even whole texts were recycled time and again. It's usually impossible to know which was the first use of any repeating unit. The end result is that suttas are frequently formulaic and repetitive. Many "suttas" are merely fragments of larger units. This would seem to fit a situation in which a relatively small number of texts were expanded and elaborated by story tellers who both used standard vocabulary and themes, and embellished stories as they saw fit. Versions of the stories diverged, sometimes to the point of seeming like a distinct story though usually with the same characters in the same setting.

In support of this is the surprising ambiguity in the technical vocabulary of Buddhism. All too often key terms are vaguely defined, ambiguous, or simply confused. Important words seem to be unhelpfully defined in multiple ways, so that each time the word appears one must pause and consider the context in order to understand. Important basic terms like dharma, vijñāna, and nāmarūpa fit this pattern. If this tradition traces back to a single person, then he was a far from being a philosophical genius. Rather the confusion in terminology argues against a founder figure who defined a jargon. It argues for a jargon that drew on many external sources and developed over time, often in independent groups, and was then roughly pulled together by some encyclopedist urge of the kind we often associate with empires. This may point to the reign of Asoka as a time when Buddhism first coalesced from a number of small, scattered, independent religious communities into a more systematic religion. On the other hand the existence of multiple recensions of the Canon argues for unevenness even in the process of consolidation. The sheer scale of the material that had been produced at this point defeated attempts to organise it into an homogeneous collection. What's more, probably quite quickly, at least two competing collections were created in different languages including Gāndhārī and Sanskrit. Gāndhārī was an important regional dialect; while Sanskrit is the prestige language of the Brahmins that did not come into widespread use until the Brahmin hegemony was well established and Sanskrit the language of the royal courts. However Gandhāra was also a centre for Sanskrit study and learning, being the home of Pāṇini, the most famous grammarian in Indian (and world) history.

It's not simply words that are confused in the suttas. There is the fundamental incompatibility of karma and pratītyasamutpāda. The former demands effects long after conditions have ceased, and the latter forbids it. Karma in the suttas is eternalistic by the standards of the suttas themselves (a point which Nāgārjuna notices even if modern scholars do not); while pratītyasamutpāda would prevent karma from working at all. I've outlined a few of the approaches that emerged to deal this problem in the Abhidharma period and after. Such fundamental metaphysical problems have been routinely ignored in Buddhist studies. The situation is analogous to the problem of skewed reporting in drug trials. Studies sponsored by drug companies have tended to only publish results when the results were positive. If a new drug scored badly, the research was simply not published. In this case meta-analysis would show an overall benefit. This has been particularly true, for example, for antidepressant medications. Many such medications are no better than placebo on average (and sometimes worse) when you take into account unpublished negative studies. While some work has been done comparing sectarian thinking, it seems to gloss over the problems they were trying to solve when they came up with their different ideas. 

Buddhist scholars seem loath to be critical of Buddhism. I notice the same phenomenon in Indian Philosophy generally: the field is still descriptive rather than critical. We don't go looking for major problems of the kind that I have outlined. We tend to cite previous descriptive work that has meticulously ironed out problems in our primary sources as proof of the overall coherence of Buddhist teaching. But even the first sectarian Buddhists did not find the metaphysics of early Buddhism coherent and invented new doctrines to deal with various problems. Written records of sectarian conflict on this issue emerged probably before the first millennium. And yet the question of why Buddhists felt the need to further explain their own doctrines and to argue quite so much as they did between schools of thought seems to be somehow underplayed. As though these ancient intellectual battles are of no contemporary interest. To my mind they are absolutely crucial to understanding the history of Buddhism.

Was the Buddha a Poor Philosopher?

An over-arching question here is: Was the Buddha a poor philosopher who could not articulate a coherent system of thought, even with the restrictions that he himself placed on epistemology? Was he like many of his contemporary disciples an anti-rationalist dedicated to subverting reasoned discussion? Or was the Buddhist tradition a syncretic mishmash from the beginning, in search of unifying narratives (like Siddhartha Gotama) from the beginning and only really finding sufficient coherence after some centuries had passed? Or is there some better answer to the philosophical mess we find in the suttas? 

To me Buddhism makes more sense if the story of the Buddha marks the culmination of a process of assimilating a wide range of cultural influences that is a new synthesis of religious ideas in India. In this we see the same kind of pattern in the advent of Tantra in the 6th century CE. Tantra is a grand synthesis of religious ideas, attitudes and practices that revitalising Indian religion, but older religious ideas are also conserved and propagated alongside. I argue that something like the Tantric synthesis happened in Indian in the 6th - 4th centuries BC, and that it took a long time for doctrines and narratives to settle into the familiar patterns. 

So where does this leave those of us who want to use the suttas as historical sources? It leaves us in a metaphorical minefield. There seem to be two main responses: smooth over and ignore the inconsistencies, or highlight and focus on them. The former argues that, at least to some extent the suttas are history. The latter that there is no history. Some straddle this divide. For example Anālayo has written cogently about the nature of oral traditions. Overall however I'm arguing for a change in method and a revision of all of what has passed for history to date.


I think the facts speak for themselves as long as we consider all of them. I said at the beginning that we would have to address the question of what authenticity means. In fact given the complexity of the problem I doubt a single definition of authenticity would suffice. The question is always authentic with reference to what? Is the Theravāda canon any more (or less) authentic than the other recensions just because by accident of history it survived seemingly intact?  Doesn't the massive amount of internal contradiction cast doubt on authenticity? Apparently for many scholars and traditionalists it does not. If the texts are an authentic record, then what are they an authentic record of? And more importantly when?

If the texts are written down centuries after the time they purport to represent, then are they authentic? Are the Pāḷi texts as authentic as history as, say Shakespeare? We presume they were composed orally and transmitted verbally for some centuries. Probably something like 12-15 generations passed if current guesses for the dates of the Buddha and the dates of writing are correct. There's no evidence that Buddhists used the mnemonic techniques that Brahmins used to accurately record the Vedas. It's just an oral literature passed on from generation to generation.

The different collections seem to reflect separate periods of relatively localised consolidation and stability after periods of sectarian diversity. In other words what precedes the period of canonisation is not unity, but diversity and conflict. What encourages us to think in terms of a big bang is the clearly fictional story of a founder. That story is clearly based in a period in which Brahmanical values are hegemonic, most likely some centuries after the life of the putative founder. We have no way of knowing whether this fiction is based on a true story. Nothing much is left when we strip out the clearly ahistorical details. At present we have no way to probe beyond the event horizon of the texts. And the date when any given text was composed is uncertain by several centuries at least, even if we do have a clue when it was written down.

The position we're in is analogous to trying to understand the history of Christianity when all we had to go on were Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost. They are authentic in their own way and attempt to be true to the Christian Religion, but if we had nothing earlier we'd never reproduce the history that we do have. Our guesses would most likely be wide of the mark. 


13 February 2015

Harvey's Early Buddhist 'Life Principle' or 'spirit'.

National Geographic
In his book The Selfless Mind, Peter Harvey (1995: §6.5-6.12) makes a persuasive case for an early Buddhist 'life principle' (jīva) in the Pāli texts which is not permanent, but provides the necessary continuity between lives to allow karma to operate. As I read the later Buddhist traditions this jīva was universally repudiated and dropped from eschatological discourses, which has made me reluctant to admit the role implied for jīva in the early texts. This essay will explore this case, offer some criticism based on the texts, and re-examine it from a contemporary point of view. Ultimately I don't find Harvey's case compelling.

Jīva is from the verbal root √jīv 'live' which is cognate with Greek bio, Latin vivere (whence vital), and Old English cwic 'alive' (hence "the quick and the dead"). Jīva is a verbal noun, literally meaning 'living, alive' and it's used across many Indian traditions to mean 'that which causes a being to be alive', i.e. as spirit in the Vitalist sense. Most obviously it is the difference between a living being and a dead one, and this is important in the passages cited in The Selfless Mind.

Harvey is able to cite a number of passages in which the jīva is unchallenged and concludes that this amounts to an endorsement. I think this method is dubious. At the outset we must be cautious about who is consenting to what in these texts. For example if, say, Kumāra-Kassapa apparently accepts the reality of a jīva, does this amount to a Buddhist view? The Buddha is often portrayed taking the Socratic approach of stipulating his opponents beliefs and then introducing other themes, often through questions, which take the discussion in a different direction causing the belief to be either overturned or made irrelevant. Quite often the Buddha contrasts metaphysical theories by drawing attention to aspects of experience. But this absence of argument against an opposing metaphysics does not amount to an endorsement of the view. We should not mistake method for doctrine; or absence of disagreement for an endorsement. 

Harvey focusses on just such an issue: the identity of body (sarīra) and jīva. His first point (§6.5) is that the Mahāli Sutta contains a series of passages which say that a person who can attain any of the jhānas would not even ask the question. Harvey then segues into a discussion of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta passages about the mind-made body (DN i.76-77) from which he concludes
This suggests that one who is proficient at meditation is aware of a kind of life principle in the form of [viññāṇa]* (perhaps with some accompaniments), this being dependent on the mortal physical body.
* Harvey idiosyncratically, and I would say confusingly, translates viññāṇa as "discernment" throughout his book. Emphasis is in the original 
The catch here is that the manomayakāya is never, to my knowledge, equated with jīva across the entire extended literature of Buddhism. Thus it seems that Harvey is here introducing a new idea that does not occur in the Canon, but he is attributing it to the Canon. He reinforces this conclusion by pointing out that some beings with mind-made bodies do not eat solid food, but feed on joy. He leaves out that these 'beings' are in fact a particular species of deva. So the view is Harvey's rather than the suttakāras and it depends on devas being both real and representative. This conflation of manomayakāya and jīva is not justified on textual grounds.

The next piece of evidence Harvey puts forward is the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṇga version of the so-called "snake skin" simile, though he cites only the muñja/reed aspect of it (§6.6). (Compare my citation of the same passage in Manomaya Kāya: Pali Texts) The language surrounding these comments is carefully hedged, but the way Harvey continues, he is clearly convinced that what he says is true. His conviction is partly what makes the section so convincing on first read. The problem here is that we know that historically the Jains did believe in a jīva so we ought not be surprised to find a Jain sūtra discussing jīva. The surprise is that Harvey believes that this may throw light on the Buddhist view of jīva. The lack of a jīva in Buddhism has typically been seen as one of the features that distinguishes the two śrāmaṇa systems. So citing a Jain sūtra here can only confuse the issue. The Jain jīva does nothing at all to establish a Buddhist jīva.

We next move to the Pāyāsi Sutta (DN 23) which portrays a debate between a Prince of Kosala called Pāyāsi (§6.7). The text describes Pāyāsi as having developed an evil ideology (pāpakaṃ diṭṭhigataṃ) of this type:
natthi paro loko, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi sukaṭakkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko 
There is no other world, no reborn beings, and no fruit or result from actions well done or badly done. 
Harvey describes this view as "materialist" though this seems to be a misnomer. Before considering broader issues, we need to comment on the word opapātika. This is an adjectival form from upa√pad with the suffix -ka. The noun form is upapatti meaning 'reborn'. The word is taken to mean 'reborn with no visible cause' presumably on the grounds of usage or commentarial exegesis, and this is the usual translation. But the literal meaning of opapātika would be something like 'rebirth-able'. So sattā opapātikā on face value ought to mean that 'beings who are subject to rebirth', and in Buddhism that rebirth is dependent on ones actions. Thus Pāyāsi is not a materialist per se, his argument is not ontological but eschatological. If we must label the view then it is annihilationist. He doubts the afterlife, rebirth and karma - just as many modern Buddhists do. 

Now Prince Pāyāsi has come up with some enchantingly macabre ways of testing the idea of a jīva. He describes having a man sealed up in a clay pot, baked until dead, and then unsealed. And as the pot is unsealed the mouth is carefully watched to see if anything exits which might be the jīva and nothing is seen. In earlier essays about the manomayakāya I argued that it is always rūpin (possesses form) and thus must be visible. However Harvey uses this passage to argue that the jīva must be invisible. Thus jīva and manomayakāya cannot be the same thing, contra what Harvey has argued previously. Not seeing the jīva escape, Pāyāsi refuses to believe in it, which seems fair enough. As unsavory as his experiments are, Pāyāsi is an early empiricist. He's rather like Dr Duncan MacDougall, who weighed dying patients to see if there was a difference between the living and the dead.

At this point Kumāra-Kassapa (Harvey mistakenly has Mahā-Kassapa) offers a counter-argument. He argues that the princes attendants do not see his jīva entering and leaving his body while he sleeps, so why would he expect to see it entering and leaving a dead man. This is a very poor counter-argument for a life principle. For a start it equates sleep with being dead! Harvey appears to overlook that the life-principle is supposed to leave the sleeping person. If jīva really were a vitalistic life principle then this would be a contradiction. Thus jīva must mean something different here and the passage in fact contradicts Harvey's argument for a life principle.

It is important to note that the Buddha doesn't appear in this sutta. Usually if a monk says something important, the sutta will have the Buddha reinforce it at the end. Here, unusually, this does not happen. So whose views are being asserted here?

In the next section (§6.8), Harvey notices some similarities between this Pāḷi text and passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, especially BU 4.4 which is one of the earliest descriptions of rebirth in the Vedic Canon.  Harvey's translation of this passage is idiosyncratic and it's worth consulting the Sanskrit or perhaps Olivelle's translation to see this. For example the verb ut√kram does not mean 'ascend' but 'depart'; and anu-ut√kram similarly means 'to depart or follow after'. Harvey's mistake is a too literal rendering of the etymological meaning. 

It might have been interesting for Harvey to consider the previou section of BU (4.3) since it deals with dreaming. BU 4.3.9 says that a person (puruṣa) can be in one of two places: this world (idam lokam) or the other world (paraloka). But the dreamer stands at the place where the two meet (sandye), he is like, amongst other things, a fish that swims between the two banks of a river. In BU it is this puruṣa (aka ātman) that transmigrates from this world to that world, and the dreamer is in a kind of liminal state between worlds. This leads onto BU 4.4 and the description of rebirth. Here we find another simile that is taken up by later Buddhists (non-Theravādins), i.e. the caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass and reaching our to another and pulling itself over. The movement of the ātman to a new body is just the same according to BU. But of course as with the Jain argument, the (well known) Brahmanical belief in a transmigrating ātman is not evidence for a Buddhist jīva. If anything we see the texts being rather scathing about ātman, though we must be cautious here because no view on the ātman is ever put into the mouth of a Brahmin in the Buddhist texts. 

A passage from the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) uses the same verbs: ut√kram 'departure' and ava√kram 'arrival' to describe the arrival or descent of viññāna into the mothers womb (§6.9). Indeed we've seen this passage in the discussion of gandhabba because it is the same one that is used to justify linking viññāna and gandhabba; and it is used by Harvey and others to argue that it is viññāna that transmigrates, not as an entity (for this would contravene other injunctions) but as a process. Here Harvey equates the process of viññāṇa transmigrating with the jīva. But we've already seen that conflating ideas and words that the Buddhist texts themselves do not is a doubtful methodology. Other Buddhist texts specifically deny that viññāṇa can transmigrate. The reason is simply. Viññāṇa arises in dependence on conditions and ceases when the conditions cease. One of those conditions is a set of functioning sense organs. If we are arguing that viññāṇa can arise independently of the body then we will have another major philosophical problem on the scale of making karma work. And we have seen that all of the major sects of Buddhism rejected the early Buddhist model of karma and substituted their own revisions. 

Invoking other parts of the Pāyāsi/Kassapa debate doesn't help Harvey's argument either (§6.10-11). Kassapa in particular argues that living things are lighter than dead things, just as hot iron is lighter than cold iron. This is simply false - the heat of iron does not affect its weight - even if it might have been accepted in ancient India as a fact. From this section Harvey draws out some key resemblances between the analogies discussed in the Pāyāsi Sutta, and despite the reservations identified harvey concludes (§6.12):
It can thus be seen that the 'life principle' or 'spirit' accepted by the 'early suttas' is 'vitality, heat and [viññāna]', or perhaps [viññāna] and the subtle 'mind-made body'. It consists of conditionally arisen changing processes, which are not identical with the mortal body, nor totally different from it, but partly dependent on it.' (95) 
All the scare quotes are in the original and with good reason. Harvey presumably knows that his conclusion is contra to Theravāda monastic orthodoxy, if not local Theravāda folk beliefs. Rather than arguing that jīva exists with the body as condition (a statement nowhere found in Pāli) most exegetes argue that the question of identity between jīva and sarīra is unanswerable. The inference we usually draw is that this is because the jīva doesn't exist. The Pali texts certainly understand that a dead body and a live body are different. 'Living' in this context is sometimes indicated by the related term jīvata (e.g. SN iv.214; MN iii.107). However where jīvata is used adjectivally, jīva is almost always a substantive noun. Harvey is certainly orthodox to argue that it must be a process, but this is not a point made in Pali, certainly not in the texts that he cites. There is no suggestion, for example that Kumāra-Kassapa understands jīva as anything other than an entity. Certain Pāyāsi believes jīva to be an entity. The texts Harvey cites in support of his idea of a non-substantive jīva all seem to disagree with him, well perhaps not all

One of the examples Harvey gives appears to argue that jīva must be a process, though none of the others do. This is the fire stick simile. An apprentice fire-worshipper is left in charge of the fire with no idea of how a fire is made. Instead of rubbing the fire sticks to rekindle the fire using friction, he tries to get fire out of the sticks by cutting them up with an axe (consistent with the view that things are made up of the four elements). Now, Harvey argues that this means that "the life principle is not a separate part of the person, but is a process which occurs when certain conditions are present." (94) However this simile is not about the jīva at all, but about the paraloka. The conclusion of the section of the sutta is:
Evameva kho tvaṃ, rājañña, bālo abyatto ayoniso paralokaṃ gavesissasi.
Just so, you, Prince, are foolishly, senselessly and unwisely seeking the other world.
Which is to say that this is an argument about trying to understand the other world by analysing this world. Like many dualists Kassapa is saying that a reductionist analysis of this world does not yield information about the other world. Since in most cases early Buddhist texts are reluctant to even discuss dualist views, let alone endorse them, then we have reason to be doubtful about this passage. Whose view is this? Given that it's never attributed to the Buddha, and given that we nowhere else find anything like this view attributed to the Buddha we ought to be cautious in reading this as an orthodox view. In any case Harvey has misinterpreted this passage and it is the only one that evinces support for the position that the jīva is a process rather than an entity. Quite clearly in these texts, as in Jain texts, the jīva is an entity. The Buddhist arguments against such entities are so well known as to need no rehearsing. Such entities are not possible in Buddhist metaphysics. 

I'm persuaded that one can find discussions of a jīva in the suttas. I'm not convinced that there is any argument for a jīva in the early texts. Next Harvey's argument strays into the territory of antarābhava which I have discussed at some length on this blog, so I'll stop here. 


It just goes to show that even argument made at some length and with supporting citations from Pāli cannot be taken on face value. The method used by a scholar making a claim must be scrutinised. Confronted with a counter-intuitive theory we must look for flaws in the logic of the argument, such as unreasonably conflating two ideas that are not explicitly conflated in the texts, such as citing evidence that does not show what it purports to show. I fear that this section of Professor Harvey's otherwise excellent survey of way "self" is used in the texts, suffers from classic confirmation bias. Only evidence supporting the proposition that there is a transmigrating "process" is considered, and no contrary evidence is cited.

The texts clearly and consistently speak of jīva as an entity, rather than a process and it is in this very idea that the roots of the Buddhist rejection of jīva lie. Of course a transmigrating "process" would rescue Buddhist karma & rebirth doctrines from inconsistency and indeed incoherence and thus we can see the attractiveness of such a belief. Sadly for this theory, what we lack is any explicit reference to the jīva as dependently arisen that might show that this is something Buddhists believed, rather than a clever, modern way to avoid the problems inherent in rebirth.

It's true, of course, that most Buddhists are Vitalists, almost by necessity since Buddhist morality depends on it. I've explored this at some length in a series of essays on Vitalism. And there are plenty of texts which, for example, seem to show a personal continuity between lives, even though a strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics elsewhere denies the very possibility. I've explored this fundamental contradiction in my essay Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics. But there is no sign that they explicitly adopted a jīva to try to resolve this problem. Continuity seems to be a pragmatic device for teaching morality rather than a core belief.


06 February 2015

Do We Have Freewill?

In the latter half of the 20th century a series of pioneering experiments by Benjamin Libet, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco, demonstrated a rather startling phenomenon. Libet was able to show that a conscious decision to flex one's wrist was preceded by brain activity which prepared to make the movement. It appeared that we decide unconsciously to make the move, the brain prepares to send the signal to move, and only then do we become conscious of having made a decision. This experiment and others like it have been interpreted by many as showing that freewill is "an illusion". In this essay I explore this argument and outline an important counter-argument by Patricia S. Churchland, Professor Emerita of Philosophy at UC, San Diego. I also look briefly at the determinist argument that some physicists profess. Freewill is not a particularly interesting problem, but since a lot of people talk about it, this is my two cents worth.

Is My Unconscious Part of 'Me'?

The first assumption to look at in the claims based on Libet is the idea that unconscious mental activity is somehow excluded from the freewill debate, even though it occurs in the same brain. But if my unconscious mental activity is not 'mine' then whose is it? The conclusion seems to be that when a decision is made unconsciously, even though it is our brain that makes the decision, that the decision does not count as freewill. Churchland sees this as a manifestation of matter/spirit dualism that separates out reason as a function of spirit. As I explain in my essay on this metaphor, having associated reason with spirit (arguing that reason itself is the essence of being human) it is entailed in the metaphor to then see reason as  "good" and the unconscious as more closely related to matter and therefore "bad". Additionally, reason appears to be under our control and the unconscious is not. Indeed part of the power of the Libet results is that it shows that reason is not under "our" control at all. It begins to look like a byproduct or an afterthought. However the general view of reason is in desperate need of an overhaul. 

I've gone over this material many times now: Damasio and others have shown that all decisions involve weighting of information via emotional resonances. In making a decision we defer to our emotions and find reasons afterwards (See Facts and Feelings). The practical demonstration of this is found in the advertising industry which, since the 1920s and the interventions of Edward Bernays, has appealed to desires rather than to reason when selling products and ideas. Bernays was able to apply his uncle Sigmund Freud's ideas to changing views. Most famously he convinced women to break the social taboo on women smoking by linking cigarettes with suffragettes. He did this by paying debutantes to pose smoking cigarettes during a parade, and alerting the press so they published the pictures under headlines touting cancer-sticks as "torches of freedom" and thus doomed several generations of women to horrible deaths from cancer and emphysema. (See Culture Wars, or The Society Pages) Sometimes taboos are good! In addition I've repeated cited the argument by Mercier & Sperber that in fact individuals are terrible at reasoning (An Argumentative Theory of Reason). We almost always fall into bias or fallacy when trying to reason on our own. They argue that this is not the case in small groups where different ideas can be kicked around and the group reasons collectively. Small groups are much better at reasoning. 

So it appears that the idea that conscious reasoning is what defines humans is long past it's use-by date. Any theory which even implicitly relies on this definition of reason ought to be discounted. Human beings make use of a range of faculties, including emotions and unconscious processes to make all decisions. Nor is it true to say that sapience is restricted to humans. We have now documented self-awareness and tool making in a number of species. Somehow the antiquated idea about reason being our highest and defining faculty still seems to be invoked, but we ought to be very wary of this. 

What Kind of Free Will are we Talking About?

Patricia Churchland makes a very important distinction about who means what by "freewill". Most philosophers and many scientists use freewill as a shorthand for "contracausal freewill". This is the kind of freewill described by Immanuel Kant. Churchland says contracausal freewill means that:
"... your decisions are not caused by anything at all—not by your goals, emotions, motives, knowledge, or whatever. Somehow, according to this idea, your will (whatever that is) creates a decision by reason (whatever that is)." (2013: 179; emphasis in the original)
When some scientist says, on the basis of Libet, that we have no freewill, this is what they appear to mean. They are arguing that we have no contracausal freewill, because conscious reason comes into play late in the decision process. Apart from the fact that this definition of freewill is counterintuitive and seems unlikely to non-philosophers, we've already undermined some of the key assumptions involved in it. As discussed above, Churchland sees that entailed in this view is the idea of a non-physical soul. By disconnecting the decision making process from our bodily processes (like emotions) and assigning it to "pure" reason, those who use this definition seem to be subscribing to a matter/spirit dualism in which reason is a function of spirit not of body. 

The more commonsense variety of freewill is less well defined partly because, like many commonsense definitions, we use it efficiently without fussing over the meaning. To make us more comfortable with the fuzziness of the definition Churchland invokes George Lakoff's ideas about categories being defined by relatedness to a prototype. In this view freewill is not an all or nothing proposition, but some actions are more free than others. Some acts are more typical of freewill than others. And people are somewhat free to choose which actions most represent freedom, since categories are what we impose on experience to help organise it. Most people intuitively understand that sometimes we have more choice than others, or that sometimes people are compelled to chose one option even though in theory they have a choice. This recognition of degrees of freedom seems vital to any sensible theory of how we make choices, especially moral choices. 

Churchland argues that:
"...if contracausal choice is the intended meaning, the claim that free will in that sense is an illusion is only marginally interesting, Because nothing in the law, in child-rearing, or in everyday life depends in any significant way on the idea that free choice requires freedom from all causes." (184)
In other words the freewill that is being denied by philosophers is not very interesting because, being divorced from experience, it's hardly credible anyway. Churchland likens the claim that contracausal freewill is an illusion to announcing that alien abductions are not real. The response is, "So what?", "Who cares?" or "Duh!" Those who deny freewill on the basis of the Libet experiments are not saying anything interesting, though of course at first glance it appears to be a controversial thing to say so the media covers it and the meme gets spread. This whole section of the debate about freewill can safely be shelved with other legacy ideas from philosophy that are no longer relevant. The question is not "Are we free?", but "How free are we now and how free can we be?"

Self Control

Even if there is some doubt about what freewill means, Churchland argues that there is a related concept about which there can be no doubt: self-control. She points out that self-control, the over-riding of impulses to act, takes conscious effort. And in terms of morality, self-control is often just as significant as conscious choice. Morality is very frequently defined in terms of refraining from actions: "thou shalt not..." (in a Christian context) or "I choose to refrain from..." (in a Buddhist setting). Libertarian secularists often complain about religious morality as just being a bunch of rules, but it might be a natural consequence of self-control being a much clearer concept. And although our laws are profoundly influenced by religious models, there has been no significant move away from prohibitive rules even in secular (or nominally secular) countries. 

Most of being a good group member would appear to be inhibiting impulses that go against group norms. Any sociable animal must at times repress selfish impulses in order to benefit the group. Social animals for example prosper by sharing food sources in a way that solitary animals do not. Our motivation for exercising this impulse control vary: fear of reprisal, shame, habit, altruism, and generosity can all come into play. Or we may feel that the "law is an ass" or decide that a small breach of the rules will draw attention to a greater breach (civil disobedience to protest government corruption for example). In other words we can be negatively motivated or positively motivated to follow established norms or to break them.

My reading of Churchland's account of the freewill debate is that for the most part it is poorly framed and thus does not produce interesting results. The reasons for considering contracausal freewill to be the best definition are no longer plausible if they ever were. It serves to confirm that the freewill debate, such as it is, is not particularly interesting. 

Making Moral Judgements

This is not to say that the matter of voluntary actions is unimportant. Social groups operate with norms and rules and when enforcing those norms it's important to know why breaches happened. This is why most legal systems make distinctions of degree in crimes like murder. A murder than is planned months in advance is always seen as a worse crime than one committed in the heat of the moment. A calculated crime is relatively more serious than an impulsive one. This is because consciously breaking the rules is a clear repudiation of those rules. In this case we have serious doubts about the willingness of the person to return to lawfulness. Part of any calculation to commit a crime is usually elaborate planning to avoid detection and punishment. Even if the rule-breaker shows remorse, we have reason to distrust them in the future.

The crime of impulse however is more likely to be understood as a momentary lapse and to be treated more leniently if accompanied by suitable remorse and a willingness to admit fault. Those who plead guilty tend to get lighter punishments. However if someone is prone to repeated crimes of impulse then we tend to treat them like the person who does calculated crimes, because we cannot trust them to keep the rules.

If someone sets out to injure a person and that person inadvertently die then this is less serious than if the assailant intended kill. It might still be considered murder depending on how we judge the risk involved. An attack with a weapon is more likely to kill than a fist-fight for example. This situation can be seen in the light of calculation and impulse also. If someone is killed purely by accident, with no intent to harm, we may still be found culpable for depriving them of life, but the consequences may be still less severe. For example neglecting our duty of care while doing an inherently dangerous activity, like driving a car, is still quite a serious crime. But if we were proceeding with due care and a pedestrian crosses the street without looking causing them to be knocked down and killed then we are not culpable even those someone has died.

On the other hand if we kill someone in the process of defending ourselves or our property we may not be culpable at all as long as the force we used is judged to be proportionate to the threat we faced. Police officers and soldiers are seldom held to be culpable of murder when they kill someone in the line of duty, even though the community may feel they should be held accountable. This is extremely controversial, but in a culture where murder is fairly routine the enforcement of law comes with severe risk. It's unreasonable to expect police to risk their lives when apprehending a suspect. Soldiers are not given carte blanche to kill. Under the modern rules of war, they may not purposefully kill civilians for example, though this is not a universally recognised restriction especially in asymmetric war where one side is far more powerful than the other. Soldiers may not only kill enemy combatants, but will be rewarded for doing so. In the Vietnam War, efficiency guru Alain Enthoven used the "body count" as a measure of how well the war was going (he subsequently was brought in to reorganise the British health service by introducing the "target culture").

People can be found not-guilty of even the most serious crimes if they do not have the ability to understand the consequences of their actions - either permanently or temporarily. We often detain such people purely on safety grounds. In making judgements about the severity of breaches of social norms we have to take many degrees of intentionality and self-control into account.

Thus an all-or-nothing freewill is not a very helpful instrument in thinking about morality. Moral judgements can be very complex indeed and always take in the motivations and the underlying mental and emotional state of the perpetrator (and often the victim as well). Thus contracausal freewill is fully irrelevant to how our laws operate and to how common sense morality operates (as already pointed out by Churchland). 

As an aside, it is interesting that the baby boomer counter-culture seemed to be all about allowing one's impulses free reign. From "free love" to "greed is good", sections of the post-war generations felt the need to stop restraining themselves and let it all hang out (as the saying goes). As it turns out the backlash against this call for loosening of social restraints has been a far more significant social movement. Neolibertarianism was driven primarily by conservative business people. They wanted freedom from government control on their collective ability to do business, and conceived of this within strong social boundaries which restricted what was acceptable behaviour. The irony is that Neolibertarians are often authoritarian control freaks. They saw increasing liberalism and individualism as a threat to their way of life and took steps to take back control. Now, ironically, we struggle to pass laws to curb the excesses of those same business people even in the face of global economic instability and catastrophic climate change. We can now talk openly about sex, and women have a great deal more social equality, but the businessmen own a great deal more of the wealth and have virtual control over governments. The ideology of the world's leaders is that nothing ought to restrain the creation of profits and that abstract markets are more efficient than governments (though every empirical fact shows this to be untrue). Conservative elements in society still allow liberalism to make gains, such as same-sex marriage for example, but only where it has no consequences for the wealth of the wealthy. At the same time the threat of terrorism continues to eat away at civil liberties and individual freedoms. So the disinhibition of the 1960s is a pyrrhic victory.

The question of who is responsible for actions has become obscured to some extent by determinist scientists. The media has shown itself time and again to be highly irresponsible when reporting science. Media companies are in the business of entertainment and so news streams are only secondarily about informing us and are primarily about distraction and sensory stimulation. Scientists with a controversial message are more likely to get the oxygen of media attention than those with the more sober message. However there is still an argument about freewill based on the view that the universe is deterministic. We turn now to this argument.

Are We Deterministic Robots?

The view that being able to frame regularities in the universe in mathematical expressions, means that the universe is therefore deterministic is popular amongst physicists. In a deterministic system if we had perfect knowledge of the starting conditions, the elements, and rules, then we could perfectly describe the behaviour of the system indefinitely far into the future. This kind of Determinism was espoused, for example, by Stephen Hawking in his last book The Grand Design:
"so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion." (32)
Sean Carroll has also expressed the view that we're all machines that think. This argument is related to the one I was exploring with regard to the afterlife. Life is made up of atoms and we understand the behaviour of atoms, so we understand the basis upon which life exists, even if we don't quite understand all the processes of life yet. But whereas the claim about the afterlife was strictly limited to the persistence of information about the person after death as governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy always increases in a closed system), this claim about a deterministic universe is unlimited. The unlimited nature of the claim trips it up.

It is true that we understand the behaviour of atoms at the energy, mass and length scales relevant to living things. But we also have to take into account the nature of complex systems. Even when a complex system is made up of simple elements following simple rules, the behaviour of the system is nondeterministic: we cannot predict it. When a system is made up of complex elements which combine according to complex rules and we get emergent properties at several different levels at once, then that system is decidedly not deterministic. An economy or the weather are not deterministic, not predictable.

As far as life is concerned we don't have perfect knowledge of the starting conditions and nor can we ever gain such knowledge. As far as the universe as a whole this also appears to be true. We can conjecture, but not have perfect knowledge. In fact because of random quantum fluctuations in space-time we can never be entirely sure about the elements in play. And the rules are sufficiently complex that to date no one understands them with anything like perfect knowledge (something acknowledged by Hawking, who goes so far as to say that he doubts we'll ever have a unified set of equations for the universe). The mathematics describing a single sub-atomic particle interacting with all the known fields has yet to be solved: it involves 7 or 9 extra dimensions of space that themselves at so small that they add nothing to the dimensionality we experience.

We can demonstrate the problem by considering a simple pendulum and then adding complexity. A simple pendulum vibrates in two dimensions, with one end fixed. The behaviour of this pendulum follows a simple law: the period of the vibration for small amplitude (θ << 1) is approximated by:

Where L is the length of the pendulum and g is the acceleration due to gravity. In fact for longer amplitudes the equation is more precisely:

This is complicated, but in fact not difficult to solve to an arbitrary level of accuracy (the factors in the series quickly become vanishingly small). For most large clocks only one or two members of the series are required for sufficient accuracy in calculations.

Intuitively we might think that adding a joint to the pendulum halfway along it's length, in effect a pendulum attached to the end of another pendulum, would complicate matters, but not so much. But in fact a double pendulum's motion is chaotic. Technically if we precisely specify the starting conditions we can predict it's motion, but we can only calculate the next moment, by precisely knowing what has happened from time = 0. For each moment in time the calculation gets longer until it very quickly becomes too difficult a problem for all the computing power inherent in the universe. If we start at an arbitrary time we have almost no chance of calculating what will happen next. A double pendulum is still technically deterministic, because it is theoretically possible to know the starting conditions, the precise details of the system, and the rules that must be followed.

If we conceive of an atom as being connected to other atoms by forces, then a system with two atoms would be like a double pendulum with no fixed end and instead of vibrating in only two dimensions they vibrate in three. The motions of these two atoms are chaotic and far more difficult to predict than a simple double pendulum, i.e. far more difficult than virtually impossible.

Now consider than there are of the order of 10100 atoms in the universe and all of them are connected via forces to each other. And we need to keep in mind that atoms, themselves are in fact systems of smaller particles which are again all interacting with all the other particles, and that fundamentally all that we see as particles and forces are simply vibrations of interacting fields that extend throughout the universe. Conceived of as a pendulum the overall motion of the universe is essentially infinitely complex. Even if we could precisely define the first moment in the history of the universe (something we cannot yet do), then by the second moment the vibrations in the various fields would be impossible to calculate. By the time particles appeared on the scene as an emergent property of the cooling universe, the system is already impossible to predict on the lowest scales. A system like this cannot be considered deterministic, even in theory.

What Kind of Ordered Universe Do We See?

So an obvious question then is, why do we see ordered behaviour at all? The order we see emerging from this 3D pendulum with 10100 moving parts is because of emergent properties when looking at different scales. Order, or quasi-order, appears in chaotic systems. Think of a hurricane. From space it looks like a relatively regular spiral, or a circle, even though at ground-level it can be chaotic. Also the intensity of the forces involved follow inverse square laws, or inverse fourth-power laws. In theory all fields extend throughout the universe, but the effects of forces are typically short range. Gravity is the only force with a very long range and that is mainly because the masses involved in cosmological phenomena are unimaginably large.

The characteristic ordering (or quasi-ordering) we see depends on the scale we adopt. For example 1g of pure carbon contains about 6 x 1023 atoms. In a previous essay I pointed out that if each atom was one millilitre in volume, that gram of carbon would fill the western Mediterranean Sea. The atoms are in motion, but the motions are many orders of magnitude smaller than a human eye can see. When we look at this many atoms, the tiny motions of each atom are cancelled out by other atoms doing the opposite. Each atom is regular in a number of ways: each carbon atom has six protons and six electrons, and either 6, 7, or 8 neutrons (giving 12C, 13C, and 14C), the chemistry of carbon is very predictable and the shape of its molecules known very precisely. But a diamond, a single gigantic molecule of carbon atoms, does not behave like an individual atom. Crystals are macro-structures that exhibit different kinds of regularities than atoms do. Sit two diamonds together and they do not interact, do not behave as a system at all. Carbon macro-molecules have very different properties to individual carbon atoms. A carbon atom is highly reactive and can form millions of compounds. Diamond by contrast is one of the most inert naturally occurring substances.

Steven Hawking wants us to believe that people are just complex machines. But this is not credible either. Perhaps at some absolute level of abstraction this is true, but not in any meaningful sense. The most complex machines we can make are still less complex than a single cell in our body. We are made from atoms, but millions of billions of billions of atoms, following complex rules; built up from another system of simpler components, also following complex rules, itself the visible manifestation of fields. We could not specify all the atoms of a person and predict what was going to happen next without first calculating every vibration in every field in the entire universe from the first moment in time. With all due respect, Hawking might be a good physicist, but he appears to be a poor philosopher. This may be why he also wrongly claims that philosophy is dead. There is nothing deterministic about a human being, which is why philosophy is very much alive (if not entirely well).

Nothing we know about the emergent properties of collections of Septillions of atoms rules out freewill as an emergent property. Nor are consciousness, or for that matter life itself, ruled out as properties of these unimaginably complex systems. We are very far from having plumbed the depths of the complexity of the universe, despite the fact that the elements and the rules governing the system are quite clear. An analogy here is the chess board. There are 32 pieces on 64 squares and the game has clearly defined rules. We can calculate the theoretical number of different games, and the best computers are better than the best humans, and yet not once has a recorded game ever been the same as a previously recorded game. The difference is that our game has 10100 pieces!

So, Do We Have Freewill?

The answer to the freewill question appears to be the one that is ascribed to the Buddha in last week's sutta translation and commentary. We unquestionably have some choice And at the very least we exercise self-control. Perhaps this is why the Buddhist precepts are phrased in terms of refraining from actions? 

The arguments against freewill that have emerged recently in the scientific community are simply poor philosophy. As Mary Midgley (1979) has said:
"There is now no safer occupation than talking bad science to philosophers, except talking bad philosophy to scientists."
That so many scientists are poor philosophers is of course deeply unhelpful. Midgley had Richard Dawkins firmly in her sights in making this comment. She considered his metaphor of the "selfish gene" to be very poor philosophy indeed (as do I). To be fair Dawkins and his followers thought Midgley completely misunderstood what he was getting at. From my point of view, Dawkins' idea is just a Neolibertarian reading of Darwinism. That's not science, it's not even philosophy really; it's ideology. What's more Neolibertarianism is rooted in the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which is really rubbish philosophy since it fundamentally misunderstands human beings. Many of these behemoths of popular science are in fact quite poor at philosophy and have created a legacy of poor thinking—especially in the form of unsuitable metaphors—that will continue to haunt intellectuals for many years to come. 

In many ways this debate about freewill is simply silly. It's a legacy of theological debates that were silly to start with. In order to deny freewill one must make a choice. In order to argue against free will, one must make a sustained effort. It's simply not credible. Of course one can choose not to believe in freewill, but that argument is self-defeating. Anti-free will campaigners must argue that they are compelled to believe what they do. This leaves them trying to explain why not everyone is compelled to the same conclusion. If we are not free, then we are apparently not free in a variety of different and conflicting ways. The different conclusions are a powerful argument against determinism if ever there was one. 

Churchland, Patricia S. (2013) Touching A Nerve: The Self as Brain. W. W. Norton & Co. 
Midgley, Mary. (1979) 'Gene-juggling'. Philosophy. 54(210): 439-458.

See also:-
Metzinger, Thomas. (2013) "The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy." Frontiers of Psychology, 19 December 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00931. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00931/full
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